Of the artists to emerge from the first big wave of UK synth-pop acts in the ’80s, Erasure is one of the few still standing. Along the way, singer Andy Bell and synth fanatic Vince Clarke have weathered all manner of highs and lows—from their commercial peak in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when they landed four consecutive albums at the top of the British charts, to Bell’s 2004 announcement that he had been diagnosed with HIV nearly seven years earlier.
Most impressive is the continued quality of their music. By mostly sticking to their chosen lane—Clarke’s glitzy, club-ready electronics as backdrop to Bell’s beguiling voice and lyrics of emotional enchantment and anguish—the duo amassed an impressive collection of good-to-great albums. Their streak was broken only in 2017 with World Be Gone, a dour record tainted by slower tempos and existential fears fueled by an ugly political present.
While it steers in the right direction, Erasure’s latest full-length The Neon doesn’t quite get the pair back on track. The album is a deliberate effort to return to the sounds and mood of the material that first made them pop sensations: Clarke reached for the analog synths he’s had since the duo’s earliest days, and Bell describes the new album as “going back to the beginning.” In its best moments, like the gooey, glammy “Nerves of Steel” and the disco blurt of “Diamond Lies,” The Neon provides a flicker of the same electric charge found in early hits like “Sometimes” and “Chains of Love.” But Erasure mostly don’t reach those same heights. Though it’s often frothy and fun, The Neon is really the sound of settling—into middle age, into committed relationships, and into their place in musical history.
Throughout, Bell takes on the tone of an elder statesman, offering pleas of care and caution either to the younger men in his orbit or to a younger version of himself. “There’s a sweetness in your eyes/You better take my good advice/You’d better keep away from them,” he sings over a blowsy Moog melody on lead single “Hey Now (Think I Got the Feeling).” On album closer “Kid You’re Not Alone,” Clarke’s mid-tempo pulses and quick-fading synth surges mirror a lyric that serves as warning on how indulgence in “earthly delights” can lead to shame and regret.
Bell has long distinguished himself from his dance-music peers by singing more of romance and lasting love than hedonism or easy thrills. On The Neon, that tender-hearted quality comes alive in tracks like “New Horizons,” a stirring torch song about weathering life’s storms beside a loved one, and “Careful What I Try to Do,” a bouncy, bubblegum tune that’s flush with the delight of new romance. But the album fails to truly surprise. Were it not for Bell’s thicker, throatier vocals, there would be little to distinguish tracks like “Shot a Satellite” and “Hey Now” from those on 1997’s Cowboy or 1994’s I Say I Say I Say.
Erasure clearly are open to updating their classic sound, as on 2014’s The Violet Flame, where co-producer Richard X helped add a sharp, icy sheen to their otherwise effervescent tunes. They even presented a different perspective on the bleak World Be Gone by re-recording the album with Belgian neo-classical ensemble Echo Collective for 2018’s World Beyond. And each man’s activities outside of Erasure—Bell’s theatrical work, and Clarke’s left-field collaborations with Orbital’s Paul Hartnoll and Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware—proves that they can push themselves beyond the tried-and-true. The Neon nestles the duo back into their musical comfort zone when they’re exceedingly capable of more.
Buy: Rough Trade
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